Replacement Windows: 10 Things to Know

Homeowners replace windows for many reasons: to increase comfort inside the house, elevate curb appeal outside the house, fix a draft or water leak, or dampen disturbing outdoor noise. Aged home windows lose their energy efficiency. Shady contractors cut corners and install windows that fail to open, close, or vent. Whatever your reason for making the switch to replacement windows, start with our list of ten things to know.

1. Replacement window install method.

The first decision in window replacement is the install method: new construction or retrofit.

New construction is the better option for replacing not just the window but also the stucco, siding, and flashing paper. (Also, choose this method to replace a heavily damaged window.) Replacing just the windows creates hurdles—such as old and new stucco expanding and contracting at different rates and cracking over time. Stucco patch jobs can also create an eyesore. The downside to new construction is the extra cost.

Retrofit is the better option for replacing just the window but not the stucco or siding. (Also, choose this method if you are replacing windows on a budget.) Designed to fit replacement windows inside the old window without removing the perimeter frame, retrofit windows create no stucco damage. However, the new window must be slightly smaller, which may seem obvious when replacing a smaller bathroom window. Another downside to retrofit is the risk for an unsightly exterior flange.

2. Replacement window frame material.

There are pros and cons to each type of replacement window frame material.

  • Vinyl. The most popular frame material—and for good reason—vinyl is a cost-effective and maintenance-free option featuring good insulation and smooth operation. One downside to vinyl is limited color options—expect few choices other than white and tan. Plus, you can’t paint a vinyl frame.
  • Aluminum. Select aluminum to replace a few—but not all—windows while keeping the style consistent. Style options range from dark bronze anodized to clear anodized. The downside to aluminum is poor insulation. However, you can boost energy efficiency by switching from a single-glazed window to a dual-glazed window built with high-performing low-E glass.
  • Fiberglass. Fiberglass is a maintenance-free window frame material featuring good insulation and dark color palettes. You can also paint fiberglass to change the color scheme down the road. The downside to fiberglass is the cost, which is about the same as high-end wood window frames.
  • Wood. Wood window frames—with or without low-maintenance exterior cladding—are a good option to restore an old home and stay true to its original style. Retrofit wood windows are often best, saving you the extra cost of ordering special sizes. The hassle of wood is the regular painting.

3. Replacement window glass options.

Up to 90 percent of window heat loss occurs through the glass. Energy-efficient windows—especially triple-pane windows—can reduce both heat loss and heating and cooling bills.

  • Single-pane windows. Made with one layer of glass, single-pane windows do almost nothing to insulate a home. However, very little can go wrong with single-pane glass—other than breakage.
  • Double-pane windows. Double-pane windows insulate homes by trapping air between the glass. (The same process happens when feathers trap the air in a down comforter.) Expect the hermetic seal to eventually fail, usually in about 15 to 20 years. Replacing a broken double-pane window can cost the same as buying the window in the first place. However, a window warranty can save you money in the long run.
  • Triple-pane windows. Expect significant energy savings from an extra layer of insulation. Triple-pane windows eventually pay for themselves in heating and cooling savings.
  • Low-E glass. Short for “low-emissivity”—low-E glass replacement windows feature a high-tech coating designed to block heat and ultra-violet light from the sun. Standard on almost all new windows, low-E glass permits a large percentage of visible light and reduces solar heat gain and fading without making home interiors too dark. For more energy efficiency, upgrade from a standard low-E glass to a newer, higher-performing low-E glass.
  • Low-maintenance coatings. Also known as “self-cleaning” glass, coatings help windows stay cleaner for longer. The low-maintenance option harnesses the sun’s UV rays to loosen dirt so water can rinse it away.
  • Argon gas. Denser than air, argon is a colorless, odorless, inert gas used between two panes of glass for a minor boost in thermal performance, energy efficiency, and savings.

4. Replacement window type.

Modern manufacturers build replacement windows in a wide variety of styles to help homeowners create a unique look with a timeless beauty.

  • Single-hung windows feature a lower sash that slides up and down and upper sash that stays fixed in place.
  • Double-hung windows feature two sashes—an upper that slides down and a lower that slides up.
  • Casement windows open with a crank for beautiful views and full ventilation. Easy to operate, casements are handy in hard-to-reach places—such as above the kitchen sink.
  • Awning windows hinge at the top and open outward to welcome extra air flow into a room.
  • Slider windows glide from side to side, creating a streamlined, contemporary profile that allows more natural light into a home.
  • Picture windows cast light into dark areas of a home, complementing a larger set of windows with an energy efficient option available in many shapes and sizes.
  • Geometric windows create a focal point that welcomes more light and adds instant character to a home. Select from many shapes and colors to find the right geometric replacement windows for your home.
  • Bay or bow windows combine three or more angled windows for a classic, iconic, and unique style that adds dimension to any home.

5. Energy Star performance.

Every window size and style features a separate, unique Energy Star rating—or degree of performance. High quality windows installed by a qualified, experienced professional can lower home energy bills by 25 to 50 percent. Here are the terms you need to know:

  • Solar heat gain coefficient designates how effectively a window blocks or keeps out heat. (The lower the number the better.) Lower solar heat gain coefficients transmit less solar heat through a window.
  • Visible transmittance designates how much natural sunlight enters through a window. (The higher the number the better.)
  • Air leakage designates how much air passes through small joints and window cracks. (The lower the number the better.)
  • Condensation resistance designates how much a window resists water build-up and fogging. (The higher the number the better.)

6. Replacement window warranties.

There are two types of replacement window warranties: one for the product and one for the construction and installation. (Select a contractor that offers both for added peace of mind).

Many contractors offer “lifetime” warranties—but their definitions vary. For example, some cover replacement parts but not the installation. Some cover products for ten years while others cover for twenty. Some cover accidental breakage for the glass or screen.

A warranty is only as good as the company behind it—so find a reputable contractor with a track record of success.

7. Replacement windows and climate.

Different rating scores can help you match your replacement windows to your climate. Homeowners living in climates exposed to high winds and cold temperatures, for example, should select a window with excellent low-temperature wind resistance.

8. Replacement window quotes.

In the home improvement industry, beware of the lowest price in town—and the quote that sounds too good to be true. Hidden fees can lurk from the installation to the manufacturing. Always make sure your replacement window quote includes the full cost of the entire project, specific to your window style, size, and specification.

9. Replacement windows and safety.

Consider your unique home before you settle on a replacement window. For example, single-hung floor-to-ceiling windows create a safety hazard for children on the top floor of two-story home. Double-hung windows that let air in from the top are safer, especially when built with tempered glass. Other safety hazards include old windows not up to code and non-locking windows that make homes vulnerable to break-ins.

10. Replacement window contractors.

The right contractor will help you figure out which replacement windows make the most sense for your home, family, and dollars. Find a contractor with years of replacement window expertise and a list of past satisfied customers. Beware of a contractor with only a couple of referrals and trust your instincts. The best contractors promise a fair price, lifetime warranty, and guaranteed workmanship.

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